History of  Online Brand Protection – 

What do its history and recent trends mean for vendors and end users ?

Having been involved in the Online Brand Protection business from its very early stages, some 14 years, I felt it would be interesting to take a look at the history of this fascinating sector to see what trends can be identified and consider what it’s future holds both for vendors and clients.


The space can be defined as “the provision of technology and services to help rights owners identify and remedy the illegal use of their intellectual property, in order to protect their reputation and revenues online”. 

This can be carried out by in-house teams, law firms, investigators, law enforcement or specialist providers such as MarkMonitor whom I joined in January 2007. Typical infringements include the sale of counterfeit goods, piracy of digital assets such as films, TV shows or live sport, the creation of sites designed to “phish” credentials or distribute malware, and social media impersonation.

In a world that has increasingly gone online, even more so during the pandemic, this is clearly of huge importance to major brands – sports leagues, for example, with no audiences in stadia are heavily dependent on broadcaster licence revenues which are in turn hugely impacted by live stream piracy, consumers exhorted to “stay at home” are shopping and paying online more every day.

Given the above, one would imagine that this would be a hugely valuable market, dominated by some of the major technology players but nothing could be further from the truth – market size has never been thoroughly investigated but best estimates are in the $500-750m range and there are no really large scale players involved, the biggest being Clarivate who divested MarkMonitor at the start of this year.  To understand why, we need to take a short look at the history of the sector.


Early brand protection technologies were essentially focused on trademark misuse in domain names or websites, examples being Nameprotect and MarkMonitor’s Online Trademark Protection. The user was usually the IP Legal department or law firms who were often outsourcing this type of work for brand owners and it was typically a limited impact/low cost solution.

However, as consumers started to move online, it became clear that IP infringements were increasingly starting to impact the Marketing, eCommerce and Sales departments and becoming visible to the C suite – when the CEOs of famous brands went to their laptops and found the first page of Google filled with counterfeit offers, pushing their own increasingly important online store down the rankings they started to take notice. When their teams looked further and found thousands of listings of unauthorised product on auction sites or pirated versions of their content available they could see this was having real revenue impact and something needed to be done.

This change in attitude happened between 2008 and 2011 and essentially moved the Brand Protection sector “across the chasm” – it was now a space where the leading providers were seeing annual contracts measured in six and even seven figure sums resulting in double digit revenue growth and good margins for the successful. The target buying persona had moved from Legal to a much broader group of executives and, in smaller organisations, actually the Chief Executive or owner.

This success drove the next two chapters in this intriguing market. First of all acquisition – NetNames was sold to HG Capital in 2011 and a year later Thomson Reuters purchased MarkMonitor, both of which signalled a more P&L focused approach to management, some dilution of the entrepreneurial spirit and a more measured approach to technology investment. At a similar time, a number of new entrants appeared – Yellow Brand Protection, Pointer BP, Red Points and Incopro are all European businesses that came to market as a result of this rapid growth in demand. Other providers in adjacent sectors such as Appdetex and RiskIQ also attempted to reposition to include Online Brand Protection in their value proposition.

The newcomers obtained significant investment and market share was their goal, with profitability very much a secondary consideration. At the same time, the task of actually protecting brands has become ever more complex as the plethora of marketplaces non compliant hosts and social media platforms grows almost daily. The breadth of the challenge grew considerably.

These events mean that it has become a highly competitive market over the last five years, such that contract values and renewal rates have fallen significantly as a result. Profitability is almost mutually exclusive with market share acquisition and the pressure this has created in the sector has resulted in another swathe of M&A activity – NetNames was sold to Corporation Service Company in 2016, Yellow Brand and Pointer were both swept up by Corsearch in an attempt to mimic the combination of Trademark and Online Brand Protection that Thomson Reuters IP & Science (rebranded as Clarivate) had created, and ironically, Clarivate then divested the OBP segments of MarkMonitor to Opsec Security just this year. Opsec, at its core an offline security business, had previously failed to gain much ground in the online market with the acquisitions of GenuOne and P4M a decade earlier.

Trends in the Online Brand Protection sector

  • Increased complexity. From a solving the problem point of view, life has got harder – the criminal with a warehouse full of counterfeit merchandise will sell it SOMEWHERE, where it once was on eBay or Alibaba, it will now be via some new marketplace or social media platform. All that can be done is to make it harder and less profitable for the seller and more difficult for consumers seeking genuine product to come across it by accident.
  • Vendor confusion. Most vendor claims in this market are incredibly similar although one may be quoting $20k pa and the other $200k and it is challenging for inexperienced buyers to tell the difference. While at a headline level, capabilities are similar, in practice, ability to scale and compliance can be miles apart.
  • Drive to vendor profitability. Two of the longstanding providers, now under new ownership and the newer entrants who have spent big on marketing and product development recently and now need further investment will at last have to “pay the piper”. This means less discounting and more realistic pricing.
  • Market bifurcation. As the vendor numbers shrink they have to either offer a low cost, basic service or a customised reach-all-corners-of-the-globe complete offering with the highest compliance. Each of those will have a different delivery and cost profile and it will be the providers that position as one or the other that come out winners.
  • New entrants with increased specialisation. As the incumbent vendors focus on managing cost and meeting their investors bottom line targets, new entrants will appear in specific niches of the industry, such as electronic investigation or means to handle local or non-compliant platforms.

The Future for Online Brand Protection

There is no doubt that in today’s digital world, reassuring the market that your offering is genuine and that it is safe to consume online is more important than ever – this has become a business critical requirement. The pandemic and whatever follows will only increase that need.

At the same time, as mentioned above, the players have really shaken out and it remains to be seen which, under new ownership and with more fiscally oriented objectives can really drive this market in terms of technology and service provision. What is clear is that the opportunity exists for someone to take a leadership position and, with the right investment, own this potentially very high growth market.

In the meantime, more sophisticated user organisations will most likely need to employ bigger in-house teams to combine base level services provided by the well known vendors with specialist solutions and their own expertise to try and meet what is a growing challenge.

Published LinkedIn  Nov 2020